contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: November, 2016

FULLNESS

Yesterday I spent 90 minutes watching trees, their branches now bare, against a steadily darkening sky. I forgot myself in the scene, feeling filled with it. The core experience was fullness.

I suppose that this is what I mean by the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ – though this experience was of the flowing present, extended over time, noticing and enjoying change in nature. On later reflection, I was less reminded of mystics and meditators than of poets, particularly John Keats and his ‘negative capability’. He contrasted this with another type of response, which he called “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”. Negative capability is “everything and nothing – it has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet”. (1)

‘Everything and nothing’ can be experienced as empty or full. I’m increasingly finding fullness. This has the effect of holding me in nature and time, in my unique human life soon enough to be over. This is where I want to be, with the important qualification that ‘fullness’ gives me a additional sense of being resourced by a larger well-spring of life than I might otherwise recognise. Experienced fullness doesn’t come simply from trees and sky. It comes also from the receptive openness I access when my senses are attuned. I find myself feeling a stillness underneath and within all movement; hearing a silence underneath and within all sound; seeing a soft luminescence underneath and within all colour and form, and in darkness too. These are the keys to fullness – a fullness where everything stills and slows down yet doesn’t stop.

Largely this is what I now mean (for myself) by a ‘contemplative’ state. Its development reflects a magpie approach to learning and my felt sense of what is right for me. I discovered the stillness through Buddhist breath meditation (movement of the breath as the belly rises and falls; yet stillness within). But I am not a Buddhist. I learned the silence through listening to the Oran Mor (Song of the World), though I don’t currently work within Gaelic traditions. I discovered (what should I call it?) primordial luminescence within the Headless Way (2). But I’m not continuing with the Headless path, because the headless trope itself now feels tedious and I don’t entirely share the Harding world view. Fullness has a link to Sophian Gnosticism, of all these traditions the closest to my heart, under the Greek name Pleroma. But my ‘fullness’ has come out of direct experience and I’m being careful to keep it that way. I like the resonance of the English word fullness, and it helps to maintain a degree of separation from the ancient view. Yet even whilst maintaining my inner authority, I am grateful for these inputs from the world’s spiritual heritage. I remain indebted whilst crafting my own path.

I’m not Keats and, for me, negative capacity for fullness tends to come as an alloy. It is generally interspersed with a certain amount of egotistical sublime, in my case as an upgraded stream of consciousness or monkey mind narrative. In my universe, that’s fine too, and all part of the fullness. I would like more skill in switching between the two modes at will, and I believe this to be achievable. At another level, it doesn’t really matter.

(1) Keats selected poems and letters Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995 (Selected by Robert Gittings; edited by Sandra Anstey)

(2) http://www.headless.org

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GLASTONBURY REMEMBERED

I am five or six years old, the year 1954/1955. I live in Yeovil, Somerset. My mother wants me to have proper shoes. When my feet are measured up in the local Clark’s shop, we find that I need a broad fitting (E) and they don’t have quite the right shoe for me in stock. After talking to the manager, who makes a phone call, my mother decides we are going to the factory shop in Street.

A day or two later, we walk to the Yeovil Town railway station and board a train for Glastonbury & Street. We are going to make a half day of it. So leaving the train  we first take a short bus ride from the station to Street and get the shoes. Then we take a longer bus ride to Glastonbury and I get my first glimpses of the Tor and Abbey. Somewhere in town, we stop for tea and cake, possibly ice cream. Then a brief bus ride back to the station and the journey home. I remember liking the visit. It was a bit special, but I don’t remember it being particularly magical or numinous.

Two years ago I gave a talk in the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms to the OBOD Winter Gathering about contemplative Druidry and my book of that name. Later in that day I found myself in the car park in town. I remembered childhood visits to the town and, looking up, I saw the railway station roof. And I thought, ‘how did that get here?’ (I have since discovered that it was moved there as a means of conservation).  I  felt a pang of loss for industrial age Glastonbury, with its good railway connections and neighbouring Street with its solid manufacturing base. (Yeovil Town was closed in 1962. Glastonbury & Street went in 1966.) Clarks shoes were a highly respected local employer, with a national and indeed international name. They are still around, still respected, but no longer a local (or national) manufacturer.

It’s happened before of course. For many centuries, the Abbey, as landowner and pilgrim destination, was the economic centre of the town as well as the spiritual one. Henry VIII’s re-arrangement of his own and the nation’s life ended that at a stroke. But the Abbey will always be remembered. Glastonbury is a pilgrim’s town again, though after another fashion. I just wonder if the culture of my childhood, of easy local train rides and proud local shoe making, will be remembered in quite the same way. At least the station roof is something.

REFLECTION: THE IMAGE OF SOPHIA

bcf2c26ec7720ed734fccc2b13534310Pay attention, those that meditate

Upon me, and listen well!

All of you who are patiently waiting,

Take me to yourself!

Don’t dismiss me from your mind

And don’t let your inner voices

Despise me; don’t forget me at any

Time or place; be watchful!

 

 

I am both the first and the last,

I am both respected and ignored,

I am both harlot and holy.

I am wife and virgin, mother and daughter.

I am the unfathomable silence,

And the thought that comes often,

The voice of many sounds,

And the word that appears frequently.

I have been hated everywhere

But also adored.

I am that which people call

Life and you call death.

I am called the Law

And lawlessness.

I am the hunted and the captured.

The dispersed and the collected.

I don’t keep festivals

But have many feasts.

I am ignorant, yet I teach.

I am despised, yet admired.

I am substance

And insubstantial.

I am the union

And the dissolution.

For I am the one

Who alone exists

And I have no-one

Who will judge me.

The lines above have been extracted from an old Gnostic text usually known as Thunder: Perfect Mind. It is part of a collection of fourth century texts known as the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in Egypt in 1945 though not published until 1978. They were buried towards the end of the fourth century, a time of intensified Christian Orthodoxy in the Roman Empire when it had become dangerous to own them. As well as Thunder, the collection includes the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip. After over 1500 years of burial, these texts are now once again widely known and appreciated. They might not have appeared at all but for the staunch championship of C. J. Jung towards the end of his life.

Generally, Thunder is thought to be about Sophia, who despite her Greek name is a figure from Jewish tradition – a disregarded voice of wisdom, culturally descended from the dethroned Goddess of Israel. In Christian Gnostic tradition, she is partly reinstated both in the myth of Sophia as a cosmic figure and alternative understanding of Mary Magdalene as a human one. This is one of the main reasons why these texts were suppressed. Thunder goes furthest, in identifying her as supreme being and beyond judgement –  unusual even in the paganism of the day. She also says, “I am the bride and the bridegroom”, calling to mind the Gnostic valorisation of the androgyne as symbol of aware wholeness.

Thunder has many themes: the Goddess and what she stands for; contested understandings of gender, social relations  and religious expression; recognition and non-recognition; the vulnerability of wisdom and spiritual insight in human communities; dualities and the non-duality they are seen to be hiding. In the historical life of Thunder, one toxic duality was to be the co-arising of widespread literacy and systematic censorship. For the Gnostics, there was no redemption to be had in history – only in the transcendent light of a realised Divine identity.

I don’t fully know why Sophia became a numinous image for me. Culturally her Gnostic story is compelling. I notice that I am not interested in the Sophia of Orthodoxy, where wisdom is the wisdom of submission (to God, church and Christian monarchy). Nor am I drawn by Sophia as a Romantic, or Jungian, symbol of the ‘divine feminine’ – with archetype as stereotype writ large. The image of the Gnostic Sophia came to me when I was working within a Pagan context and feeling uninspired by gendered north European deities, with the partial exception of Brigid. In any case, I didn’t want to lose touch with the near eastern traditions, especially in this dissident form from Alexandria, which I felt to be part of my spiritual culture. Whatever the reason, Sophia entered my heart and imagination in a way that no other named and anthropomorphised deity has ever done. She became the perfect patron for a contemplative inquiry, taking on especial significance in the final year, when I talked about a ‘Way of Sophia’.

I still keep the icon close to me, and intend to continue doing so. But two recent dreams suggest some withdrawal of presence and energy. Not in a bad way – it’s more like fare-welling a companion or guide at the end of a journey. I am left with gratitude, inspiration, memory – and some continued sense of connection. This post is a way of honouring her.

Mostly I have selected the text above from the Alan Jacobs translation in The Gnostic Gospels published in London by the Watkins Press in 2005 as part of a series entitled Sacred Texts. However this translation is both free and  incomplete, and for my last four lines I went back to the third revised edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English published by Harper San Francisco in 1990, with James M. Robinson as general editor.

Artist Hrana Janto at http://hranajanto.com/ (The image at the top of this post is used with her permission.)

 

[A Pedagogy of Gaia] The Worst Animals in the World, by Bart Everson

A balanced reflection on ways of thinking about ourselves as humans.

Humanistic Paganism

The Worst Animals in the World

The first results came in from Indiana, my home state. Us grown folk were not surprised, and we knew the final results would be different — or so we thought.

View original post 898 more words

POEM: COMMUNICATION

Another poem from the English poet and mystic Clare Cameron (1896 – 1983).

 

I beg you, do not speak,

For then I shall not hear what you are saying.

I beg you, do not move,

For then the recognition of what we know

In these arrested moments of our vision

Will fall apart, disintegrate,

And again we shall be ordinary.

 

Let the silence touch the chords of your heart

To its own deep music

And mine will thrill in unison

In the symphony where all chords blend.

You move towards me, as I to you,

Though a hairsbreadth or seas divide.

 

Through us the spirit moves,

Quickens and embraces,

Bringing the comfort, the wisdom and the joy

Of the whole …

And now the words will come

Falling gaily in crystal drops

From the bright torrent of the waterfall

Whose spring is in the mountains.

 

Clare Cameron Memories of Eden London: the Mitre Press, 1976

 

 

POEM: THE GREAT MOTHER

“If we think with the Earth spirit, our souls become populous with beauty, for we turn the cup of our being to a spring which is always gushing.” A.E.

The Great Mother sustained me at that time

Of the bare earth and the cold rime

With the purity of her clear air,

The acceptance of the seasons year by year,

The serenity of patience in her face

That soothed the heart and slowed my pace.

Wher’er I walked, by hill or field or shore,

In summer time she never gave me more.

 

Her calm, her majesty and powers

Strengthened me and taught me in those hours.

Under the open sky, or through the shadowed wood

New truths were given and were understood.

Vast and deep her wisdom. With her lore

Our souls are fed, perhaps as ne’er before.

In winter quiet, where frozen is the rill

Herself she gives, our emptiness to fill.

Clare Cameron Memories of Eden London: The Mitre Press, 1976

downloadClare Cameron (1896 – 1983) was an English poet and mystic, whose life spanned much of the twentieth century. In 1930 her Green Fields of England, centred on footpath travels in the English countryside, was compared to the work of Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas in the previous generation. At this period, she was involved with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. For two years the noted occultist Israel Regardie worked for her husband Thomas Burke and wrote the first of his books on the Kabbalah at their home. Later, Clare became associated with the London Buddhist Society under the leadership of Christmas Humphries and formed a friendship with the young Alan Watts, who she succeeded as editor of the journal Buddhism in England (later The Middle Way) when he left for the U.S. in 1938. Gradually Clare moved in a more Christian direction, and for over 20 years she edited The Science of Thought Review, based on the ideas of the mystical teacher Henry Hamblin.

clare-cameron0001Throughout all these changes Clare drew on her experience of nature as sacred within a spirituality that emphasized the sanctity of existence and the silent background of being. Politically she championed women’s empowerment, non-violence in both aims and methods, the view that interdependence applies to countries as well as people, and the growing attention to environmental causes. She also supported the early development of interfaith dialogue.

POST INQUIRY: SACRAMENT OF THE PRESENT MOMENT

I completed my contemplative inquiry after five years of focus on 25 October, and I have updated my ‘About’ statement for this blog to reflect that. As I say at the end, I will keep up this blog, under this name, for the time being. I will provide information about contemplative Druid developments, write book reviews, post poetry and share personal reflections. As far as any public spiritual stance is concerned, I identify myself as a loosely associated Druid who continues to learn from other traditions.

One thing I take away is that I don’t have to share a person’s cosmology and beliefs to learn from them. Right now, I am thinking of Martin Pegler’s book (1) on the modern Christian mystic Martin Israel. It was recommended to me by my Druid friend Rosa Davis and I realised that it helps me to articulate something important even though I do not share its faith framework.

Pegler and Israel both use the term ‘sacrament of the present moment’. This isn’t just about being awake and attentive. Talking about ‘contemplative prayer’, Pegler says: “Reality need not be attained since it is an already accomplished fact, but it still needs to be recognised and then made our own if it is to mean anything. With an open mind and heart, it is best to forget everything we have learned and begin again just where we are … we wait patiently in the stillness of attentive trust for Truth to reveal itself”.

Pegler is a former follower of Ramana Maharsi who came back to the Anglican Church, so he is speaking of a Divine Truth. But his approach does not require this understanding to make sense. “Making a solemn pledge to honour everything in our experience is enough to allow the waters of Life to flow unencumbered … To know the true self … requires a radical acceptance of ourselves as we really are, of our whole personality in fact. As the outer layers are recognised and put in proper perspective, so the core or centre of the psyche is revealed. How radiant and warm it is but how few of us know it! We are deterred from this knowledge by the surrounding layers of cold and darkness. Many people strive for this central place of warmth, of which they are intuitively aware and may even have touched momentarily during meditation or during some great aesthetic experience. But few will attain comfort until they have made the surrounding darkness their own possession also.”

I find these reflections helpful. Treating present moment awareness as a sacrament, rather than an attainment or skill is helpful. Allowing the ‘moment’ to be reflective – to have depth and interiority – is helpful. Recognizing ‘light’ and ‘dark’ alike is helpful: nothing gets airbrushed out.  The sacrament of the present moment is a full recognition of who I am and the context in which I find myself.

This radical acceptance paradoxically opens space for change. I find limited value in approaches that say, ‘don’t be like that. Be like this instead’. But the sacrament of the present moment is different. I think I’ve been celebrating it for a long time without naming it. Each experience is what it is, and remains sacramental in despair and joy alike. Cumulatively I have been finding it naturally easier to access a felt sense of inner freedom and peace. I recognize this heart space, or heart-wisdom space, as my true home. This place, or state, is also the centre from which I operate best in the wider world. It is my reason for maintaining a personal contemplative practice.

  • Philip Pegler Meeting evil with mercy: an Anglican priest’s bold answer to atrocity Winchester & Washington: Christian Alternative, 2016 (Reflections on the Ministry of Martin Israel)